Video games can be massively addicting and no one knows that better than fans of Bethesda’s lush, open-ended Elder Scrolls series. Friday, November 11, saw the release of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest in that ambitious, seemingly endless world of forests, castles, good guys and bad guys and now, for the first time, dragons.
Like many other gamers, I’ve had a difficult time staying away from the game, so I was pleased to speak with Ellen Dubin of Napoleon Dynamite and Lexx fame, who plays Common Woman in Skyrim. Here is what she had to say about being part of Bethesda’s latest masterwork.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the most highly anticipated video games of the year. How did you become involved with it?
Like most actors, we spend a lot of our time auditioning for a wide variety of roles. My Los Angeles voice agent Tom Lawless at Vox emailed me some sides [which is a portion of some of the dialogue that the characters might say] and I recorded about twelve different characters for Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
Timothy Cubbison who is the casting director/production supervisor at Blindlight along with the creative team at Bethesda Softworks heard my audition tape and cast me off of that. I figured better to try for a lot of roles — you have a better chance of booking one. That strategy paid off and I started recording the game about eight months ago.
Have you done much voice acting prior to your work on this game?
I consider myself relatively new in the voice world but have acted on stage, film and in television almost my whole life. I had been and am currently working on another big game and had done an animated feature prior to that which will be out next year.
I am also the voice of the spectacular attraction called The World Of Color at Disneyland Adventure Park. So when people come into the park they hear my booming voice as they enter and exit. I have done some voice work for the US Armed Forces.
Could you describe your character without giving too much away?
I play a wonderful fleshed-out character named Common Woman. Originally, when I auditioned for the role, I thought because she was nameless it would just be a small role. But when I started the recording sessions, I realized that she was a complex multi-layered character with a lot of dialogue.
Obviously from the name, I am one of the regular people in the game - not royalty, not a fantasy character. The Player has the ability to chose what my character will do depending on the scenario he or she picks.
So I was thrilled because I was able to use my comedy and dramatic skills. I literally would be delivering a joke line and then turn on a dime and be crying over the death of another character.
It was amazing to be able to use all my actor skills and create this emotionally rich character.
How exactly is voice acting done in a game as open-ended as Skyrim and how long did it take for you to complete your role?
You enter the studio and initially I was shown a trailer for Skyrim and also a diagram by the director Brenda Phillips so I could get a sense of the style and look of the piece.
Then you start recording line by line. You do not see the visuals when you record but you are told what is happening and directed accordingly. Sometimes you are directed to do the section with a more subtle sound or at times you are screaming at the top of your lungs in battle cry mode.
Some of the creative team are in the room helping you along and advising you on how to pronounce the names of the other characters and some of them are on the phone as was the case in my recording sessions with the wonderful team at Betheseda Softworks. We also recorded a couple of different versions of the lines so that they could choose what they wanted for the final product.
My character had five sessions. The last one was a very short few pickup lines directed by Wes Gleason. Each time I went in the studio, they would play me a track of what I had recorded before to make sure I had the same tone and voice quality as the time before. [It was important] to remain consistent in the depiction of the character.
Were you shown drawings of your character and asked to come up with her voice from those or did the game makers have their own idea of how your character should sound?
I was shown one drawing of my character prior to recording the first day and a magnificent trailer. She was a beautiful short, stocky, round peasant woman with a kerchief on her head. I am a very tall lean woman who never wears a kerchief!
It was a wonderful collaborative effort but you have to remember that the creators of this game have worked long and hard for many many years developing and knowing every nuance of these characters. So I welcomed how specific and focused they were on what they wanted from my role.
Yes, if I wanted to give them another interpretation of a line, they were welcoming of that. I also appreciated that they knew the game as a whole and they were aware and very helpful along with the director and recording engineer where my character was going.The voice was very similar to my own with a bit more weight and gravel because she was a world weary character.
Hugh Laurie, who’s done a great deal of voice acting in his career, has been quoted as saying that one of the best things about it is that you can wear your own clothes. What do you enjoy most about voice acting?
Hugh Laurie has a great point. You can be very comfortable when you record voices in your sweat pants and ball cap. You also don't have to memorize lines - the script is there in the room with you and you read off of that!
I love the fact that you are not cast for how you look. So, for example, as a very tall slim woman, I am in this game playing someone very petite and chubby. I am able to play [a character who is] 4 or 400, all shapes and sizes, a witch, a queen, a regular woman, a policewoman, a scientist. I can do all kinds of accents and vary my voice etc.
I find voice work very freeing and very challenging. I love creating a whole new world and helping the Player hear that world and the relationships I create. It is the most wonderful form of acting for me right now!
Are you a gamer? If so, have you ever played any of the Elder Scrolls games and what are your impressions of them?
I have never been a gamer so the only knowledge I had of the Elder Scrolls game was doing research online and looking at trailers before I auditioned for Skyrim. But I have to tell you, I think I am going to go out and buy this one. I was so impressed with what I saw and loved all the story lines I recorded. I am a newbie to this world.
You’re working on the game Guild Wars 2 now. How does this project differ from Skyrim?
I am playing three different characters in Guild Wars 2 as opposed to the one in Skyrim. The characters I am playing are more fantasy and mythical like and not realistic looking at all. They have some animalistic qualities looks-wise.
The style of acting may be a little bit broader in Guild Wars 2 but it is still rooted in reality. I love the challenge of creating different voice patterns and qualities in the same game with three characters. There are some real subtle differences with my characters in Guild Wars 2 but a lot of it has to do with the intentions and goals of the various characters.
Would you like to do more voice work, possibly on big screen animated projects?
I would love to do a lot more video games. As an actor who has done so many different styles in film television and on stage, I adore the worlds that are presented in video games: from the absolute fantasy worlds to the more realistic worlds.
I recently completed a European/American animated film called Around the World In Fifty Days. I played two different characters. One was a fish that sounded like Marilyn Monroe and the other was a sea dragon that sounded like Mae West. I had a blast doing this animated movie.
I would love to do it all. Narration of big IMAX films to more video games to huge animation films! I also have a 3D zombie feature film coming out with Christopher Lloyd and the only reason I mention this film in an interview about my voice work is that when I turn into a half zombie, half demon in the movie, I had to use and create a new kind of zombie like voice. So I used my voice acting skills in the film when shooting. BRING IT ALL ON!
For more information on Ellen Dubin, visit her official PR website.